The Therapeutic Aspects of Salish Spirit
Wolfgang G. Jilek
University of British Columbia
The southwestern part of the province of British Columbia and the western part of the state of Washington are home to the Coast Salish Indian nation. The Coast Salish have important elements of traditional culture and art in common with other North American Indian nations of the Northwest Pacific coast. However, in mythology and ritual they are close to the Salish-speaking populations of the Plateau Culture Area that extends over wide regions of interior British Columbia, eastern Washington, Idaho, and Montana. In accordance with their intermediate position, both geographically and culturally, the Coast Salish combined the Plateau tribes' quest for vision and the power of a guardian spirit that was part of the ancient North American Indian guardian spirit complex (Benedict, 1923) with the secret society feature of initiation to the winter spirit ceremonial that was typical of traditional North Pacific Indian cultures, especially of the Kwakiutl.
In the aboriginal culture of the Coast Salish, before the dominance of non-Indian governmental and ecclesiastical authorities was firmly established, the most important ceremonial of the guardian spirit complex was the winter spirit dances in which all tribes of this North American Indian nation participated, as documented in ethnographic reports (Barnett, 1938, 1955; Boas, 1894; Curtis, 1913; Duff, 1952; Eells, 1889; Elmendorf, 1960; Gunther, 1927; Haeberlin & Gunther, 1924; Hill-Tout, 1902, 1904, 1905; Jenness, 1955; Olson, 1936; Smith, 1940; Stern, 1934; Suttles, 1955; Willoughby, 1889; Wilson, 1866).
In traditional Coast Salish society, adolescents and young adults of both sexes were encouraged to show endurance on an ascetic quest in search of a guardian spirit, roaming for months, sometimes years, through forest wilderness and along ocean beaches. The tutelary spirit would eventually appear in a vision and bestow on the determined seeker an individual song with special protective powers as well as talents that would be of great benefit in later life. The future shaman's quest for healing power was characterized by longer, more demanding ordeals, and a more intensive vision experience. For those who had successfully acquired spirit powers, the advent of the ceremonial Salish winter season was heralded by a nostalgic despondency with various physical symptoms that revealed their suffering from spirit power illness akin to the initiatory sickness of the budding shaman, which is institutionalized in many